In the aftermath of Liverpool crossing the top-four finish line, as narratives are shaped on the present and future, there is one statistic that catches the eye and holds it. Over the past three seasons, Jurgen Klopp’s side have accumulated the exact same points total – 265 – as Manchester City.
That even after a campaign from hell, in which they ceded Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip for almost all of it, Jordan Henderson for a huge swathe while Thiago, Fabinho and Diogo Jota were also absent for lengthy periods.
Liverpool had to use young Caoimhin Kelleher in goal when Alisson Becker was sidelined, before he too got injured. Nathaniel Phillips and Rhys Williams had to navigate the final stretch of the season as the central defensive pairing. Trent Alexander-Arnold, apart from the four games he sat out due to a calf problem, had to go and go again on repeat like Andy Robertson on the opposite flank.
And yet, still, over three seasons Liverpool have matched the benchmark in English football, who are able to drop £65m on Ruben Dias and £40m on Nathan Ake after already having Aymeric Laporte and John Stones – who cost over £100m combined – in their ranks.
That is no shade on City, it is mere fact that they enjoy greater resources. And neither is it an endorsement of Liverpool’s transfer-light policy, which sees them gamble too much in important areas. It is an appreciation of the work Klopp has done, especially in a thankless 2020-21 season in which he had to also navigate the heart-wrenching loss of his mother.
“If someone would have told me weeks ago – five, six, eight, 10 weeks ago – that we can finish the season in third, that was absolutely out of reach and felt impossible,” the manager admitted. “Even the good things when they happened this year didn’t feel too good very often because too many bad things around happened. The injuries was a subject that followed us through the whole year and that was really tough to take.
“For the whole team, fighting through this and finishing third is the best lesson you can learn for life. I couldn’t be more happy that I was around when that happened again. From nowhere to the Champions League in five weeks is a massive achievement as I see it and I think that’s right.
“From outside you cannot really understand because we are just Liverpool: we have to perform, we have to win, we have to become champion or whatever. It was not possible for us this year so you have to fight through and in the harder moments you can learn the most, in the harder moments you can show the most and we really stuck together all the time.”
Liverpool can look forward, comforted by the silver lining of still mixing it with Europe’s elite, but they cannot be complacent. There are areas in the squad in need of an injection of quality and City, Manchester United and Chelsea have no designs on standing still.
First, Liverpool need a centre-back they can bank on to partner Virgil van Dijk in terms of availability as neither Gomez nor Matip last the course of a campaign. Phillips put in a Herculean effort at the end of the season, but can he really be considered second or third choice in a team gunning to reclaim their league title?
Ozan Kabak has shown glimpses of potential and would only cost £18m if his loan were to turn permanent but he would be operating under different pressures, expectations and judgement level moving forward.
The club have shown serious interest in Duje Caleta-Car or Ibrahima Konate among a shortlist as their big option and it is absolutely imperative that the heart of defence is fortified without needing to shift Fabinho back there. His return to midfield provided the platform for Liverpool to clinch a Champions League spot.
Solid cover that can be trusted has to be drafted in for the full-backs, who have been overexerted.
Georginio Wijnaldum’s exit leaves a gigantic tactical-technical-discipline hole in midfield. Not only was he near omnipresent in the centre of the park during the evolution of the team into winners, Klopp could implicitly count on him to serve the gameplan.
The Fabinho-Thiago-Henderson combo will be a strong one, but what are the options beyond them. These pages have detailed Naby Keita’s issues, and despite being fit for so long, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain only started two games this term. Curtis Jones is still developing and Xherdan Shaqiri only had a pair of run-outs from the off since February.
Liverpool’s attack has been shredded down to just Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Jota. The first three have been so overworked while also ageing together. They remain a formidable force that has been elevated by the signing of the Portugal international, but long-term refreshing and planning needs to start soon.
It seems clear that Divock Origi’s Liverpool spell is over. But therein will lie one major conundrum for the club: cutting the fringe while ensuring good fees from sales to reinvest when there is not much money floating around due to the pandemic.
There is much manoeuvring to be done and sporting director Michael Edwards can excel in these situations. Liverpool will look back at this season happy with the outcome given the circumstances, while still wondering ‘what if?’
They cannot waste an opportunity to inject a little quality and freshness that will take them a long way in putting City and the rest on edge again.
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